Whitley Castle Roman Fort Cumbria

Whitley Castle is a Roman auxiliary fort overlooking the South Tyne Valley to the north of the market town of Alston in Cumbria. English Heritage’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation Team are undertaking a detailed study of the site, primarily to gain a better understanding of the fort, of the civilian settlement or ‘vicus’ which might lie nearby, and of the subsequent history of the area following the withdrawal of the Roman army.

By improving our understanding we can help to assist the owners with the task of managing this scheduled monument, and ensure that the archaeological remains are taken fully into account as they plan the future of the farm. Part of that future, connected with the renovation of an adjacent bastle, is to make the fort more accessible to school parties and tourists as well as the many walkers who follow the Pennine Way footpath around the margins of the fort. By creating improved access and interpretation facilities we hope that future visitors will be able to appreciate just what a unique and astonishing place this is.

Aerial image of Whitley Castle

The well-preserved earthworks of the Roman fort known as Whitley Castle (© English Heritage 2008 NMR 20677 049) 

At the moment Whitley Castle could be described as the North of England’s best-kept Roman secret. It is a bit off the beaten track as far as Roman history is concerned – lying some 15 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall and 20 miles north the Roman road from York to Carlisle. This isolation may explain why Whitley has largely escaped the attentions of robbers, antiquarians and archaeologists, and remained so incredibly well-preserved to this day.

In fact there have been just two recorded archaeological excavations. One dig in about 1810 exposed part of a bath house outside the north east corner of the fort; another, in 1957/8, explored a narrow segment of the northern ramparts and the interior. Until recently, everything else we knew about the site came from aerial photography, documentary sources, inscriptions and odd items accidentally unearthed over the years.

Whitley Castle lies on the line of a minor road (the Maiden Way) straddling the high and lonely country between the forts at Kirby Thore on the Roman York-Carlisle road, and Carvoran on the Wall. The line of this route can still be seen crossing the fields between the fort and the modern A689. Whitley, perhaps the Epiacum mentioned in Ptolemy’s 2nd century Geography, appears to have been the only fort on the Maiden Way.

One of its purposes must therefore have been to provide a welcome and secure stopping place for troops; but it was also well positioned to control the local inhabitants and, more particularly, the area’s greatest asset: the production of lead. As far as we can tell the fort was built in the mid 2nd century, although there may have been an earlier Roman camp on the spur, and perhaps a still earlier Iron Age fortification of some kind.

The fort appears to have been partly or wholly destroyed around AD 200, rebuilt shortly afterwards, and rebuilt once more (or refurbished) around AD 300. In the third century it was occupied by the Second Cohort of Nervians: 500-or-so auxiliary troops from a division originally recruited in the lower Rhine area and named for the Emperor Nerva. In the early third century these troops dedicated a temple at Whitley to the Emperor Caracalla. Other religious items found here include an altar of the Sixth Legion dedicated to Hercules, and another altar belonging to the secretive military cult of Mithras.

The fort in its final form is a wonder of the Roman world. In many respects it follows the usual fort layout (doubtless prescribed by the military field-books of the day) with principal roads dividing the interior, a central headquarters building, commandant’s house, barrack blocks and granaries – all visible in the earthwork remains. In other ways, however, the fort is quite exceptional. The spur above the South Tyne provided the ideal strategic position for the fort, but was the wrong shape to accommodate a Roman fort’s usual ‘playing card’ outline.

The engineers’ solution was to skew the line of the perimeter wall to form a rhomboid, and then adjust all the internal features to match. The modifications to the standard pattern didn’t stop there. In addition to the perimeter wall Whitley has the most remarkable series of defences – four massive circuits of ramparts around the three outward faces of the spur, increasing to seven on the remaining uphill, side. No other fort in the Roman Empire had such elaborate defences!

Survey work on the ramparts of Whitley Castle

GPS survey of the western ramparts (© English Heritage) 

English Heritage’s work at Whitley Castle follows hard on the heels of a geophysical survey carried out by GeoQuest Associates within the fort and across the area immediately to the north. Their results were intriguing (as they showed bulky areas of building foundations within the fort and slight traces elsewhere) but not particularly clear. The exceptionally well-preserved earthworks, on the other hand, offer immense possibilities for analysis and understanding, and these are the subject of our current programme of work. The detailed earthwork survey will inform the location of further geophysical investigations. The results of our investigation and the accompanying report will put Whitley Castle ‘on the map’, provide the basis for walkers guides, interpretation boards and tourist information, and encourage more people to visit the fort and its wonderful surroundings.

The Whitley Castle survey forms part of a broader research project in the North Pennines, supported by English Heritage and the North Pennines AONB Partnership, designed to investigate the evolution of the landscape around Alston.

For more information, contact Dave Went dave.went@english-heritage.org.uk at English Heritage’s York Office, tel (01904) 601901.


Dave Went
Assessment Team Manager - North
Heritage Protection Department
t: 01904 601927